Saturday, February 21, 2009

Comet Lulin: More Things in Heaven and on Earth, Horatio

There’s a lot happening in the heavens, especially from Feb. 23 (the eve of Ash Wednesday) and right through Feb. 27! All within five days, Comet Lulin will be at its closest proximity to Earth, sharing a visual conjunction with Saturn. We’ll see a new moon and a conjunction of Jupiter, Mars and Mercury – with the result that Ceres (the 590 mile-wide asteroid recently reclassified as a “dwarf planet”) cameo appearance might be overlooked as it orbits between Mars and Jupiter.

Since Comet Lulin won't be visiting this neighborhood for at least another 1,000 years, skywatchers might want to hie themselves and the children outside to view the upcoming heavenly, once-in-a-millenium show! Below you'll see a a generous handful of spectacular pix and "forecast" graphics of Comet Lulin and the conjunction of the new moon and three planets.

Below: Three different views of Comet Lulin's parabolic orbit on Tues., Feb. 24, 2009 (the evening before Ash Wednesday).

Comet Lulin is traveling backward in orbit - that is, from east to west. The planets and our moon travel west to east. (For color-coding explanations, please see the note directly under the three following graphics.)

Note: "The orbits shown above are color coded. The planets are white lines, and the asteroid/comet is a blue line. The bright white line indicates the portion of the orbit that is above the ecliptic plane, and the darker portion is below the ecliptic plane. Likewise for the asteroid/comet orbit, the light blue indicates the portion above the ecliptic plane, and the dark blue the portion below the ecliptic plane." To see and play with a "moving" diagram of Comet Lulin's orbit with an applet from which these graphics came, please visit Solar System Dynamics (NASA).

Already brighter than expected, Comet Lulin is now visible to the naked eye (if the sky is clear). However, as it nears earth on Ash Wednesday, the use of binoculars or a telescope will allow one to actually watch its steady movement against the background of stars.

Just two nights before, on Sun., Feb. 22, the waning crescent moon itself will be in conjunction with Mercury and Jupiter. (On Mon., Feb. 23, Mars joins the conjunction.)

Below: The south-eastern sky in the pre-dawn hour (5:30 a.m.) on Mon., Feb. 23, 2009. The waning crescent moon is close to Mars, Jupiter and Mercury.

Next "forecast" picture below: In the early morning hours of Tues., Feb. 24 (eve of Ash Wednesday), Comet Lulin joins the party (appearing directly below Saturn, in constellation Leo, in the south-southeast sky), while the moon will be "new." On this same morning (just before dawn), Mercury and Jupiter will appear very close together – seemingly side-by-side.

Interesting Tidbit: As the moon moves away, it will be "on" earth's equator – possibly leaving earth 'wide open' to solar winds that have twice ripped off one of Comet Lulin's tails.

Below: Three days later, on Fri., Feb. 27, the waxing crescent moon moves into conjunction with Venus – a spectacular sight all on its own!

With all the gravitational forces in simultaneous array and play, there has been some conjecture on the potential effect on earth. Since the moon's movements have so much to do with the ocean tides, it is theoretically possible that the gravitational effects from the moon, Comet Lulin, Ceres, and the triple-planetary conjunction could cause severe storms, if not earthquakes and/or volcanic eruptions, anywhere from Thurs., Feb. 26 to Sun., Mar 1, here on Terra Cotta.

Let's hope the above conjecture is simply reserved caution, and that we may view these amazing heavenly line-ups with awe of God's creation, offering a thankful "Godspeed" to Comet Lulin as it returns to whence it came.

"There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy..." - Shakespeare


  1. Thank you Marianna for bringing this to our attention. My husband who listens to the radio and TV heard nothing of this. Today as my daughter and I reviewed the info you provided, looked at the photography of the Northern Lights caused by the comet on Valentine's Day, and reviewed the star charts... it seems it may be noteworthy that the comet is leaving the constellation Virgo when entering Leo.
    Thank you for your perseverance and teachings.
    It sure has been windy the past few days here in New England!
    one of your simple disciples

  2. Dear CS:

    I had every intention of responding to you but, of course, a "series of events" began that kept me away from the computer since my own last post.

    A sincere thank-you for your kind remarks. Btw, my dh also listens to radio and heard nothing of the celestial events. There is much to ponder about them and I agree with your comment on what was especially noteworthy.

    Finally, please know that you are truly a 'sister in Christ' because both of us are HIS disciples.

    A most blessed Lent to you and yours!